The National Catholic Review

The things they brought with them to the convent did not belong to them. They came from other people’s lives:
• Six white cotton T-shirts like the ones in their father’s bureau drawers. These shirts would be worn under a black blouse.
• Black lisle stockings and black shoes with laces, exactly like those their grandmothers wore.
• A corset with an embedded circle of long bones, also their grandmothers’ daily support. This firm foundation wrapped twice around their slim frames and served to hold up the black stockings.

 

• An abbreviated Batman cape.

• A plump red tomato pincushion stuck with pins and needles. A wooden darning egg. A pair of scissors. These were the things used faithfully by their mothers, who got them at the Busy Bee; but the ones they bought their daughters came from the finest department stores. From then on, the daughters would be mending their own black lisle stockings.

• Eight linen table napkins and a silver napkin ring; a place setting for a fine dining room in the home of an elegant aunt.

• A short black veil like the black mantilla the aunt wore in honor of her deceased child.

All the things they brought were called “ours.” Some of them they never saw again. Where was the blanket soft as mother’s love, the one with the yellow flowers and ribbons laced through the top? So cheerful, the mothers had said. What a strange trousseau, they had thought. And whatever became of the linen table napkins and the silver ring? Or the Speidel armbands?

The things they brought with them were collected from other people’s lives. They were mismatched and filled with conflicting voices. What did not mysteriously disappear landed in restricted areas, to be visited with infrequent passes. Many of the goods were stowed in a large black trunk with reinforced metal corners and a sturdy lock. None of it, neither the trunk nor its contents, resembled anything an 18-year-old would use.

The things they brought to the convent eventually wore out, as did the times, and were replaced by college degrees in padded covers, lesson plans and classroom decorations, endearing letters, photograph albums, mementos marking milestones, the grey slacks a father died in, with $6.46 still in the pocket.

The trunks bumped along with them first to one convent, then to another and another. Some of the convents resembled mansions, with wide circular staircases, ballrooms and faded red carpets. Red geraniums swung from the porches, and there were gardens out back. Some of the convents were red brick laid square by immigrant hands, with white boards and stately columns, stucco, pebble, split-level clapboard houses that slumped next to railroad tracks, and convents that hugged the churches whose names they shared. Others clung to the sides of hills or squeezed in next to tenements and were indistinguishable from them.

They lived in duplexes, in small apartments over Chinese restaurants, drugstores, thrift shops and saloons. In cramped quarters the trunks served as coffee tables and chests of drawers. Bruised with time but indefatigable, the trunks were stashed in the basements of churches and on the roofs of mobile homes, in carriage houses, high-rise apartments for the elderly poor and in the back rooms of rural clinics. All the rooms the sisters lived in were borrowed, like the shoes and shirts they had brought with them when they entered. In every house there was a small gold box in which God lived, so that to recover the gold box was to hear intimate conversations.

One by one the convents they vacated were converted into homes for battered women, retreat centers, fine catechetical schools and libraries and soup kitchens. Even credit unions and parking lots. The ghosts of the sisters who had died in those convents roamed in dismay from room to room.

One by one the trunks found their way back to the basement of the motherhouse whence their journey began. The sisters visited the trunks whenever they pleased, but aching joints and an unreliable elevator prompted many to carry the albums and endearing letters, a few mementos and $6.46 up to their small bedrooms. They showed the pictures and, over a small glass of wine, told one another their stories. They held each other’s hands and kissed each other’s brow when the day of parting came. The nieces and nephews they had watched grow in the photo albums came and spoke their love.

None of the things, though, that the sisters first brought went with them to the small rooms in the cemetery. And they were just as glad.

Joan Sauro, C.S.J., is author of the forthcoming children’s book Does God Ever Sleep?